In “Arrival,” Amy Adams stars as a linguist trying to communicate with aliens.



Science-fiction thrillers often send in gun-toting heroes such as Will Smith and Tom Cruise to kick invading-alien butt. The movie “Arrival” is completely, wonderfully different: It sends in a linguist, played by Amy Adams.

“Language,” one character says, “is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.” The big question to ask the aliens: What is their purpose on Earth?

In the 1997 movie “Contact,” the character played by Jodie Foster figured out that aliens were using sequences of prime numbers in their communications, and she used those numbers as a Rosetta stone to decrypt their messages. In 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,”the visitors from afar helpfully used five musical tones in a major scale, presumably because vibrating strings have the same harmonics in several parts of our galaxy.

The aliens of “Arrival” make incomprehensible groaning noises. In attempting to communicate with them, Adams’s character, Louise Banks, learns that their written language is circular and that it doesn’t seem to progress from cause to effect. To the aliens, time does not have a direction.

This is not so odd: On Earth, some cultures conceive of time differently from other people. Chinese-speakers tend to think of time running from top to bottom, as opposed to English-speakers, who think of time running left to right.

“They use nonlinear orthography,” Banks says. “Do they think like that, too?”

This is our introduction to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which holds that language shapes the way we think. In the 1940s, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf proposed that the structure of a language determines, or at least influences, how we perceive and experience the world. The theory has been controversial, but there is now some support for it.

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